The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report July 30 criticizing the Department of Homeland Security's analyses that concluded researchers can study foot-and-mouth disease as safely on the mainland as on Plum Island.
The DHS recently chose Manhattan, Kan., as the site for a new National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility to replace the half-century-old Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York, the only U.S. facility where researchers study live FMD virus (see JAVMA, Jan. 1, 2009).
According to the GAO report, DHS analyses did not adequately characterize and differentiate the relative risks of a release of FMD virus at Plum Island and five potential mainland sites for the NBAF.
The GAO agreed with the DHS that modern containment technology has reduced the risk of an accidental pathogen release and that the safety of high-containment laboratories has improved, but the report noted evidence showing that accidents continue to result from human error or operational failure in facilities.
"Thus, as DHS has acknowledged, the risk of release of an agent from a modern HCL is not zero, and Plum Island offers a unique advantage—with its water barrier and absence of animals—over the mainland," according to the GAO report.
The DHS does not plan to re-open the site-selection process for the NBAF on the basis of the GAO report, according to a response from DHS with input from the Department of Agriculture—the latter of which conducts much of the research on Plum Island. The DHS noted that five U.S. laboratories in populous areas operate at the highest biosafety level, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and none has exposed the public to a pathogen. The department added that constructing the NBAF on the mainland also offers advantages.
"Conducting foreign animal, emerging, and zoonotic disease research on the mainland in proximity to nationally recognized research capabilities, programs, and research relevant to the NBAF mission requirements further enhances the nation's capability to protect agriculture, food systems, and public health," according to the DHS.
The AVMA has supported upgrading laboratories where the USDA studies animal health. In March 2006, the AVMA Executive Board approved a policy stating that the Association supports the concept that the DHS should not restrict potential locations for the NBAF to Plum Island.
The GAO report is available at www.gao.gov by searching for the report number, GAO-09-747. The DHS response to the GAO report is at www.dhs.gov/nbaf.